Feedback is a tool

Do you have conversations at work about the importance of feedback? Have there been initiatives to try to create a culture of feedback for your organisation? Do you have a nagging feeling that feedback should be delivering more for you than it does?

Feedback is a bit like sex – people think everyone else is doing it way more than they are, when not many people really are! It seems that feedback has been turned into something way more complicated than it actually is.

So it’s time to get back to basics and to the joy of feedback.

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Feedback is just a tool that is designed to help you get better at stuff that you want to get better at.

Feedback is about information that helps you make decisions about what actions to take next based upon what you’ve just done.

Feedback isn’t something some generations want more than others – it’s just a tool you can choose to make use of if you’re committed to learning and growing.

High performance headlines

The truth is:

  • Feedback is misunderstood and it’s become way more complicated than it needs to and often not set up properly to be truly effective.
  • For feedback to exist, there has to be a clear focus for feedback that is understood by everybody involved in gathering the feedback.
  • For feedback to be really useful, everyone needs to be clear about how improving the area that is the focus of feedback, will help to achieve the success we’re all working towards.
  • For feedback to exist, all people involved in responding to the feedback need to have the same definition of what great is and what not great is, when describing the thing you’re focusing on and trying to improve.
  • For feedback to be effective, you can consider different ways of when and how the feedback is given – the scheduling of feedback is an interesting science in relation to supporting learning.

The full viewpoint

Going back to my roots in sport science, I first came across feedback in the area of skill acquisition. As a concept, there was loads of detail around what it was, how it can be used in different ways and most importantly, how it helps develop a skill, develop confidence and maintain motivation to keep practising.

I’ve also worked in high performance sport for over two decades which is a world in which athletes can have feedback about performance pretty much every second of a training session if they want it. So in this world, with the volume of feedback available, you have to be expert at owning feedback, filtering feedback and collaborating to apply the feedback.

Picture this scenario

Think about a coach working with an athlete to help develop the skills needed to play. The ability to provide an instruction of what the technique looks like and to then monitor the attempts to execute the skill a key influence on successful learning of the skill. When you’ve got the ability to then let the learner know how well their attempt has matched the desired target, then confidence and learning can grow.

Feedback is the bit that helps connect the quality of the attempt to the desired target. Once the feedback is present, coach and performer can plan the next attempt to improve with a shared understanding.

The coach and the athlete can also choose to focus on feedback that is geared towards how well the technique was executed (knowledge of performance) and also on what the result of the technique was (knowledge of results). So learning a tennis serve, you can start to make connections between your increasing technical proficiency and the resulting consistency with which the ball ends up in the service box. In time the feedback might get more detailed to give feedback on speed of service or about the effectiveness of different kinds of service.

This systematic approach to using the tool of feedback to help promote learning and to cement skill in place (thus building confidence) is a long way from the catch all concept of feedback that exists in the corporate world. Feedback seems to mean anything from ‘anything someone fancies telling me about me that they think is important for me, even though we’ve not defined what is’ through to, ‘a structured exercise where lots of people get to fill in a form to let me know what their views are on me and certain performance attributes’. Seldom are any of these versions of feedback done with a common view of the end game that is being worked towards or with a clear understanding of what excellence really looks like in any of the qualities being assessed.

How to use feedback in an effective way

For you to be in a position to be able to use feedback in an effective way (one that aids learning, builds confidence and supports motivation), it’s important that you can answer the following questions:

  1. What is the overall picture of success that we’re all working towards which is ultimately our reason for wanting to improve (and make use of feedback)?
  2. What would the complete performer in my role possess in terms of skill, knowledge, attitude and expertise? Can I clearly communicate that benchmark with everyone who I work with?
  3. What’s my current level of capability relative to the profile of the complete performer according to me and those key people I work with?
  4. Which areas of my capability do I need to focus on developing over the coming weeks and months in order to move closer to being the complete performer?
  5. What activities do I need to engage in to help me develop the enhanced capability that I’ve identified and who else needs to be involved in supporting me to improve?

If you haven’t got these questions answered, then by all means have feedback conversations, but to be honest, all you’ll be doing is the equivalent of going to an art gallery and listening to all of the varied, subjective views that exist about a piece of art. You’ll hear a lot of stuff that might be valid and might not, and some stuff that seems aligned and other stuff that seems totally conflicting. It’s interesting to hear all of the contrasting views, but ultimately, it’s difficult to know what to do with all of the opinions.